The holiday season is all about traditions, of course, and that includes pie-making. Apple pie, pecan pie, pumpkin pie, chocolate pie. Every family has a favorite pie recipe, and every recipe has a story behind it.
Maybe it’s time to let a little sunshine smile through the winter overcast by introducing a new pie tradition, one that adds a tropical twist to the dessert table. We’re talking key lime pie, Florida’s official dessert since 2006, born in Key West in the 1820s.
Genuine key lime pie is defined by the unique floral-scented juice of the West Indian lime, which is the size and shape of a golf ball, with a leathery skin that turns yellow when the fruit ripens. Those net bags of tiny green limes from Mexico you see in supermarkets, labeled as “key limes”? Not the same thing.
Neither are the big green Persian limes in the neighboring bin. Wrong color, wrong flavor.
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West Indian lime juice is absolutely essential for real key lime pie, but you won’t find those limes in California or anywhere else outside of Florida, as disease-control laws forbid their export from the Sunshine State. That leaves our longtime go-to: bottled West Indian lime juice from Nellie & Joe’s Key West Lime Juice Co., a product found in most area supermarkets and an excellent substitute for fresh limes (we’ve made pies with both).
Perhaps ironically - though logically - none of the juice N&J’s bottles is from limes grown on the Florida Keys, the string of coral islands that connect the southern tip of Florida to Key West. That’s because commercial groves of West Indian limes no longer exist there.
The lime is a “dooryard” fruit, meaning the trees are commonly found in residential back yards in South Florida and the Keys as part of edible landscapes. Simply, there’s not enough juice available for commercial use. Instead, N&J’s reconstitutes concentrated lime juice from fruit grown in commercial groves in the Caribbean, South America and Mexico (www.keylimejuice.com).
“We move literally millions of bottles of juice each year,” said N&J’s co-owner Cheryl Millar, with husband Rod Millar. Their customers are bakeries, specialty-food stores, supermarket chains, cruise lines, restaurants, bars and, yes, home cooks, she said. “It’s used not only in pie, but in cheesecake, cookies and other baked goods, and as a marinade and cocktail mix. There are so many uses for it.”
The Millars, who are from Canada, bought the small Key West-based mom-and-pop shop in 1993 (it was founded in 1968), moved it to Pompano Beach in 2002 and grew it into a multimillion-dollar company. Eventually, they contracted with a bottling facility in Southern California to accommodate the growing international demand for their unique product.
“Having (facilities) on both coasts works so much better,” Cheryl Millar said.
Like so much of Florida’s history, the West Indian lime has a hurricane connection. One insight comes from “Fruits of Warm Climates” by botanist Julia F. Morgan: “By 1883, the West Indian lime was being grown commercially on a small scale. When pineapple culture was abandoned on the Florida Keys because of soil depletion and the 1906 hurricane, people began planting the limes as a substitute crop. The little industry flourished but was demolished by the infamous hurricane of 1926. Thereafter, it was once again a casual dooryard resource.”
Key lime pie is relatively easy to make, but beware of its many guises. For instance, run away from recipes that call for cornstarch (as a thickening agent) or green food dye or lime Jell-O (to make it “lime green”), or ones that suggest the acidic lime juice will “cook” the raw egg yolks in the filling (say hello to possible salmonella poisoning).
This recipe came my way via a formidable home cook I happened to meet in Miami years ago. She was born and raised in Key West, and her recipe was a family heirloom. It dates to 1875 and shows its age as a culinary antique.
For instance, it calls for six egg yolks in the filling and a 4-inch-tall, sugar-sweetened meringue topping. I’ve tweaked her recipe many times in experiments that were disastrous (why would you add chocolate or blueberries?) or successful (two egg yolks aren’t enough, and four are one too many).
It’s been lightened up by folding beaten egg whites into the filling before baking, forming a built-in meringue that melds with the filling and makes it far less dense. Also, the filling is spiked with a whisper of vanilla extract. A graham cracker crust is a must (for tradition and texture contrast), but with additions.
This pie is like that slightly eccentric aunt you see once a year during the holidays. She seems to be a sweetie at first, then quickly surprises everyone with her puckery side – but in a good way.
While on the subject of holiday pies, let’s take note of what the American Pie Council tells us about ourselves: It reports that 47 percent of Americans associate the concept of “comforting” with eating pie, and that “one in five Americans” has eaten a whole pie “by themselves.” Fork or spoon?
Lastly: In the children’s book “Babar on Paradise Island” by French author-illustrator Laurent de Brunhoff, the elephant Babar (king of Elephant Land), his elephant family and “their friend the Old Lady” are stranded on a tropical island after their yacht runs aground. One illustration shows the smiling group eating slices of yellow pie. The text reads: “With eggs, lime juice and condensed milk saved from the boat, the Old Lady made them a key lime pie.”
Turns out that Brunhoff, now 93, and his wife, Phyllis, split their time between New York City and Key West. Good plan
KEY LIME PIE (serves 6 to 8)
For the filling: 2 cans Eagle brand sweetened condensed milk
1 cup (and a possible drizzle) Nellie & Joe’s Key West Lime Juice
3 egg yolks
¼ teaspoon real vanilla extract
Directions: Pour the sweetened condensed milk into a stainless-steel or plastic bowl (not aluminum). Then add the three egg yolks, saving the whites in a separate bowl. Pour in 1 cup of lime juice and the vanilla extract.
Whisk by hand until the batter is smooth and consistent. Do not use a blender or electric mixer. Taste it. Does it need a drizzle of lime juice to add more pucker? We say yes, but you decide. Set the bowl aside.
For the graham cracker crust (read this carefully for our tweaks): Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Follow the recipe directions on the box of graham cracker crumbs, which calls for 1 1/4 cups crumbs, ¼ cup sugar and 1/3 cup melted butter (five tablespoons). However, we need another tablespoon of butter because we’re adding 3 to 4 ounces of pecans (1/4 cup to 1/3 cup, depending on your pecan love), run through a nut grinder or finely chopped, and a dash (1/4 teaspoon) of cinnamon.
Also, instead of the recipe’s ¼ cup of white sugar, use 1/8 cup of white sugar and 1/8 cup of brown sugar. Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, then add the melted butter. Blend with a spatula until melded and pliable.
Follow the recipe directions to “evenly spread the mixture onto the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie plate (press it with your fingers). Refrigerate until firm.” The recipe says to “bake the crust in a 375-degree oven for 6 to 8 minutes,” but we prefer to bake it in a 300-degree oven for 12 minutes.
Remove the pie plate from the oven and keep the oven at 300 degrees. Beat the 3 egg whites with an electric hand mixer until they peak. This part is a bit tricky: Give the pie filling a few more whisks and gently fold in the beaten egg whites, using a spatula. The idea is not to thoroughly incorporate the whites into the batter by stirring, but to leave most of the lumps of the whites floating on top of the filling. Remember: Gentle does it.
Now slowly pour the mixture into the pie crust, using the spatula to evenly distribute as many egg-white lumps as possible on top of the filling. Once cooked, the pie will have a baked-in meringue which will make the filling less dense.
Cook the pie for 25 minutes. Take a look: Has the meringue turned golden-brown? If not, add another five minutes, but watch it so it doesn’t burn. Next, turn off the oven and turn on the broiler. Monitor the pie closely, as meringue burns quickly. The goal is to lightly char some of the meringue peaks, for aesthetics. Those little charred touches add drama to the presentation.
Remove the pie from the oven, place it on a cooling rack for a few hours, until it reaches room temperature. Cover with a loose tent of aluminum foil and refrigerate overnight. Serve it cold and acknowledge the applause.